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Austin Resource Recovery doubles efforts to collect compostables

Tuesday, February 25, 2014 by Mark Richardson

The city’s Resource Recovery Department continues its push toward its goal of Zero Waste by 2040 by doubling its current program to test curbside compost collection. Officially calling it the Curbside Organics Collection Pilot, city officials are hoping they can convince residents in selected neighborhoods to put their food scraps, yard waste and unrecyclable paper and wood products in a green cart for weekly pickup.


Program officials hope to eventually expand curbside composting citywide in order to divert those materials from the landfill. But a little more than year into the pilot program, the biggest obstacle appears to getting potential participants past the “yuck” factor.


The program is aimed at those Austinites who don’t already have a compost bin in their backyard. It seems that combining food scraps and grass clippings in a container that sits outside for a week in the Texas heat and humidity can create an ugly situation when it begins to “digest.”


Vidal Maldonado, a division supervisor with Resource Recovery said that some customers object to the way organic materials can break down over a few days in the curbside carts, sometimes producing an offensive smell and maggots. He said customers are encouraged to mix in grass clippings and wood and paper products to keep the material from digesting too quickly.


City officials just recently expanded the pilot program, adding about 6,500 households which are eligible to participate. That is in addition to 7,900 homes that were in the program when it was started Jan. 1, 2013. The City Council has budgeted almost $1 million for the pilot program, spending $485,000 in 2013. They plan to spend $550,000 in 2014 to expand the program as well as maintain service for the original customers.


Resource Recovery has chosen select neighborhoods across the city in which to run the pilot program. According to Maldonado, the city chose five neighborhoods for the first year of the pilot and added another five for 2014


“We chose the neighborhoods to try and get a cross-section of the city,” he said. “That way the data we collect can be representative of different neighborhoods. That way we can get a pretty good idea of what would happen if we expand this to the whole city.”


The city has chosen two neighborhoods in far Northwest Austin for the pilot, as well as areas in North Central near MoPac Boulevard and Koenig Lane, East Austin neighborhoods near downtown and the Montopolis area, neighborhoods in South Central as well as both Southeast and Southwest parts of the city. A map of the Pilot Program Areas is available on Resource Recovery’s website.


City workers pick up the compost material and take it to a private composting company, Organics by Gosh, east of SH 130. Organics by Gosh, which accepts the compostables at no cost to the city, won a contract last year to process the materials. Once it has turned the materials into compost, it packages and sells it.


Officials with Resource Recovery say participation in the first year has been a disappointing 30 percent of eligible households setting out the 96-gallon green cart each week. Program officials report that they have collected less than 2,000 tons of organic material in the first year of the pilot program.


Lauren Hammond, a spokeswoman for Resource recovery, one of the program’s selling points – beyond keeping material out of local landfills – is that customers who separate their organic material from the rest of their waste can switch to a smaller waste cart and save money. The city currently has four sizes of trash bins available, including 24-, 32-, 64- and 96-gallon carts, priced from $13.35 a month for the smallest to $33.50 a month for 96-gallon version.


“When you divert your food scraps, yard clippings and spoiled paper from the waste stream to our composting program, you will likely be able to switch to a considerably smaller cart,” she said. “Downsizing from a 96-gallon cart to a 32-gallon cart will save a homeowner $226.80 per year.”


Maldonado says the city will conclude the pilot program near the end of this year, and evaluate the results before making a decision on expanding it to the entire city.


Austin is one of about 150 cities around the country that is offering or considering offering curbside compost collection, According to The Washington Post, in 2010 the vast majority of the programs were in western states, such as California, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Several states in the Midwest and on the East Coast have a small number of cities participating in programs. Texas had two programs listed in 2010, the most recent year the data was available.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States generates about 35 million tons of organic waste each year, but only three tons of that are recyclables, with the rest going to landfills.

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